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Saturday, June 09, 2012

MIBURN: Review of We Are Not Afraid


I happened to watch the movie Mississippi Burning again recently and was instantly returned to the events of 1964 and 1965, the year I graduated high school. I had forgotten how bad things were. Random lynchings, murder, intimidation, arson; they seemed to be regular occurrences, our own Kristallnacht, if you will, except it lasted much, much longer. There is no question prejudice still bedevils us, but it is remarkable how much has changed since 1964.

The FBI has declassified many of the documents from its files related to MIBURN and, while heavily redacted, still make interesting reading. [http://vault.fbi.gov/Mississippi%20Burning%20%28MIBURN%29%20Case] This book is still one of the best summarizing events.

"Jordan stood in the road with his gun at his side. ’Well, he drawled solemnly, ’You didn’t leave me nothing but a nigger, but at least I killed me a nigger. " This is a book everyone should read. They use the murder of the three civil rights workers as a backdrop for a thorough and frightening history of the civil rights movement during the early 60s. The movie Mississippi Burning was loosely based on the same incidents.

"Mississippi Burning" or MIBURN was the FBI code word for the investigation in Mississippi. The situation in Mississippi was truly horrifying. Blacks were routinely murdered, beaten and terrorized with the full complicity of the local police. In 1958 a black professor at Alcorn (a local black college) sought admission to the University of Mississippi. He was of course denied admission and when the word. got out of his attempt he was dragged from his home and declared legally insane and committed. Another black, a graduate of the University of Chicago, applied in 1959 for a summer session course at the University of Mississippi. He was shortly thereafter framed for stealing 5 sacks of chicken feed and sentenced to 7 years at hard labor.

Mississippi had been targeted by SNOC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,) CORE, (the Congress on Racial Equality) and several other civil rights groups for a massive voter registration campaign. Neshoba County, where the murders were committed, was so racially uptight that the children of a. mulatto couple "formed a covenant to live their lives in celibacy to prevent their blood strain from being passed to another generation." The KKK was very active; most of the local police were members. From the moment of their arrival the civil rights workers were the targets of bomb threats, intimidation, and harassment. The courage of these students knowing that they might be facing imminent death is truly astonishing. The list of bombings, arrests, and beatings between June 16 and August 14, 1964, for example, ran to 34 single-spaced typed legal sized pages. (The three murders were committed on June 21, 1964.)

It is also ironic and sad that the nation's ire was aroused only after two white students were killed. While searching for the three bodies many bodies of brutalized and mutilated blacks were discovered including, tragically, one which was never identified; that of a fourteen year old boy who was discovered wearing a CORE T-shirt. Black leaders became ,justifiably bitter. One additional irony. The authors present substantial evidence that it was LBJ’s refusal to seat the Mississippi Freedom Party at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 that led to the rise of the black power movement. The phrase "black power" was first used at that convention. What astonishes me is that despite the mounting frustration and bitterness which had accumulated over the years, Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach still managed. to obtain such a wide base of support.

This is an important book, although the incredible amount of hatred portrayed, will truly depress the reader. The Nazis obviously had no corner on the brutality market. Personally, I think Mississippi would have made a terrific place to store toxic waste.  Or is that redundant.
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